It's picnic season, time to sit out on the lawn and savor all those great American summertime favorites: succulent yellow corn, juicy red tomatoes, tender green broccoli - all a feast for the eye as well as the stomach. But wait! Before you begin to wax poetic about Americas bounty, you might want to note that a gigantic food fight is breaking out over our homegrown goodies.
At issue are GMOs, short for genetically modified organisms, pioneered by America's biotechnology industry and using the latest gene-splicing techniques. Right now most GMO crops are things like soybeans, corn and potatoes - gene-altered to be stronger and to resist pests and drought better than their old fashioned cousins. You may not realize it, but we consume GMO corn and soybean oil in everything from corn-fed beef to Coca-Cola to cake mixes.
What's more, scientists across the nation are working on new generations of GMO fruits and vegetables that may someday contain not only more vitamins and minerals, but also cancer-preventing properties and even vaccines and other medications. And already GMO fish and animals are coming to market. Scientists have created "super salmon," that grow twice as large as the usual type when modified with genes from another type of fish.
But are these miracle crops or "Frankenfoods" that could be masking a monster? European consumer activists have started raising a fuss about GMOs. There have been demonstrations on the streets of Italy and in the English countryside. And of late, Americans are getting into the act with protests in places like Boston, New York and Washington. Eco-terrorists have also emerged in this country, destroying crops and labs where genetic food experiments are being carried out.
Opponents of these new foods complain that the government has not required long-term testing to be done on the impact to humans or the environment. Andrew Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety in Washington says, "I'm very concerned that these...foods could create toxic effects in consumers, could create some very serious allergenic effects,...could lower the nutrition in our foods and could create antibiotic resistance."
Val Giddings, a spokesman for the biotechnology industry, claims that the industry has done its own testing and that since GMOs were first introduced in 1990s, evidence shows that "there is not so much as a sniffle associated with consumption of these foods."
Advocates for GMOs point to unfounded consumer panic over substances like Alar, a product used to keep aples fresh that turned out to be safe. Critics recall concoctions like DDT that were supposed to kill insects, but ended up having a devastating impact on plant and animal life. And the public is caught in the middle.
The Clinton administration recently announced that it was studying the possibility of greater regulation but so far has ruled out mandatory labeling to let Americans know whether they are ingesting products that contain genetically modified foods. But quietly, some administration officials seem to be acknowledging that tighter rules for GMOs make sense, as I came to realize during a recent chat with Dan Glickman, the secretary of agriculture.
Glickman is an unabashed advocate for genetically engineered foods. He believes that "a lot of the opponents just want to see this industry killed. Dead. No development and that is a stupid thing for the human race to do."
"The world and the American people want progress," he adds.
As a former congressman from Kansas, Glickman is well aware that most Americans loathe the idea of more bureaucracy and red tape. But he also knows that we want someone to make sure we aren't drinking botulism spores along with our soup or scarfing down E. coli-laden burgers. "I do understand people feel a little bit differently about food, he says. "I do think that the technologies are changing rapidly,...and we will have a more sophisticated testing and regulatory system as time goes forward."
It doesn't take much reading between the lines to see that Glickman is predicting that there will eventually be more GMO regulation, just not on this administration's watch.
But why not turn up the volume? Surely the best way to get Americans to accept this new technology is give us every shred of information about it as soon as possible. Because I, for one, can't wait to nibble on that cancer-preventing broccoli.